Why a Bach cantata ensemble needs a conductor

(Originally posted on April 18, 2010)

In December 2001, I was in Brussels visiting my good oboist friend Katy.  Thanks to her, I was able to sneak into the Flemish side of the conservatory and observe some of Mr. Sigiswald Kuijken’s baroque violin lessons.  In between those lessons he taught (all in different languages), he came to me and asked a few questions.  When he asked me what my goal was, I told him that I wanted to organize my own Bach ensemble and direct Bach cantatas regularly.  “Well, then you must be a violinist, and that explains why you are here,” and he went on, “who do you study with?”  I told him that I didn’t even own a baroque bow at that time, and that I was going to get to it.  And also I mentioned that I didn’t intend to direct an ensemble as a concert master; I told him that I wanted to lead the group as a conductor.  “Oh, no,” he said, “you don’t need a conductor for that. You shouldn’t even think about that.  The last thing you want in a Bach ensemble is the conductor.”  And he went back to the center of the studio to give another lesson.

He just dismissed my ultimate goal out of hand.  I had already known his negative take on the need and purpose of a conductor for a baroque ensemble from his TV interviews, but the way he told me his opinion was as if he even loathed conductors in general — I almost forgot the fact that he had been conducting classical orchestras.  Since he is such a significant figure in the Early Music movements in Europe and in Japan, his denial of my dream was a bit shocking, indeed… but it wasn’t nearly shocking enough to make me have second thoughts about my intensions.

If it’s a good instrumental ensemble for Bach concerti or overtures, an excellent conductor for it would be supplementary, not mandatory.  A good concert master, good sections leaders and (especially) a good continuo section can take the ensemble afar, no question about it — only the sky is the limit for an ensemble like that!  But what about a cantata ensemble?  Good musicianship among the musicians certainly could eliminate the need of a conductor as a security blanket, perhaps.  But who’s textual understanding they should rely on?  Theological insights?  Context?

A Bach conductor in my view is a leader who brings the ensemble a unified view of the piece.  I believe that a Bach cantata is a device — or a vehicle — to transmit a message.  A Bach conductor needs to go on a spiritual journey to find this message, and see how Bach had constructed this device to effectively and convincingly deliver the message.  Chances are, finding the message isn’t as simple as just studying the pericope of the day the cantata was written for.  Sometimes you see marked relevance in the usage of a certain figure in cantatas.  Sometimes you see Bach’s inclination toward an idea through his marks and instructions to limit players’ artistic options.  It isn’t about finding the correct message; it is about getting on this journey with your undivided attention to the music and the text, and about having the passion to keep digging however difficult or uncertain it may be.  Having this extremely rewarding process before you even get to a rehearsal — having the time to get to the depth of it with the Bible, commentaries, kritische Berichte, the Unger, the Meyer and all other sources on your desk — is what makes you a Bach conductor.  …Of course, you also should be technically sound as a conductor, understand the instruments’ strengths and limitations, and be able to express the affect with your body without even thinking about it.  You also should be ready to take full responsibility of things that happen in your performances.

It is common that a baroque chamber ensemble, lead by a violinist or a continuo player, hosts a few singers to perform Bach cantatas.  But in those circumstances, the instrumentalists tend to rely on their instrumental intuition to determine how it’s done; even when the instrumentalists follow the text inflection as they play, I could often hear some degree of disconnection between the voice and the instrumental ensemble.  It is not about having a conductor as a mediator.  It is about everyone naturally coming together under one person’s contagious love of the music and his/her conviction — and about this person helping musicians understand what is asked of them at a particular time in the music-making.  Your face, your sincere attitude and your gesture could save hundreds of words during rehearsals and spiritually unify the ensemble as a whole.  I’m sure Mr. Sigiswald Kuijken is a fantastic leader, but I believe that his purpose of performing cantatas is a bit different from mine.  Bach cantatas are what charge me up, help me up and fill me up— and I’m all about making the music work as it was designed to work.

…I suppose what I’m saying is that you shouldn’t overlook what a Bach conductor can bring to the table.  You may still say you don’t need a conductor, and I may agree with you if you are talking about just a conductor as a security blanket… You don’t need a conductor; you need a good Bach conductor to do Bach cantatas.  I aspire to be a good one at that.  : )

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